“Yellowjackets” and the Disturbing Reality of Social Contract

The cast of Yellowjackets. Seven teenage girls in the woods at night wearing muddy clothes

The cast of Yellowjackets (Photo credit: Kailey Schwerman/SHOWTIME)

This article contains spoilers for Season 1 of Yellowjackets.

“Yellowjackets” is a good name for the show Yellowjackets. It sounds like it could be an old-fashioned term for traitors, or lesbians, or perhaps treacherous lesbians—a “sewing circle,” sharps in fabrics. A self-consciously snug name for a piercing weapon: Like Melanie Lynskey’s Shauna, the show’s magnificent central performance, stabbing a man to death while looking not merely cozy in her xanthic cardigan, but positively mumsy.

Stories about production staff on Yellowjackets reportedly encouraging Lynskey to lose weight are sadly not surprising (though it’s gratifying that her costars stand in solidarity with her). But these reports suggest that at least some of the show’s crew fails to grasp what makes it so brilliant: the startling physical virtuosity of the primary characters. This show about high-school girl athletes has more to say about the bodies of women than most in recent memory, and it conveys what it knows via the bodies of its actors, empowering Lynskey, Tawny Cypress (Taissa), Juliette Lewis (Natalie), and Christina Ricci (Misty) to deliver performances as vital as a classic Joaquin Phoenix turn.

With Yellowjackets, the so-called “puzzle-box show” achieves a kind of maturity by doing away with the conspiratorially furrowed brow of the masculine heroes who are obsessed with, and eventually resolve, whatever metaphysical conundrum that has made life unlivable. Lynskey’s woman well past the verge of a nervous breakdown subverts—with wit and even generosity—the macho performances that helped establish the genre: Lost, Heroes, The Leftovers, True Detective, and Mr. Robot (though Rami Malek’s presentation is a bit more complicated on the gender front than the others), as well as, going a bit further back, The Prisoner and Twin Peaks.

While some of those shows were wonderful, they reveled in the satisfaction of the man who has subsumed the world’s problems within a metaphysical commitment that makes him look crazy to the outside world. Lynskey reconceives the puzzle-box as the natural inheritor of a different lineage: an extension of 20th-century women’s fictions. Part Bridget Jones, part Miss Marple, part Isadora Wing, part Betty Friedan, Lynskey realizes Shauna’s gradual moral and epistemological collapse beautifully, showing us a woman whose capacity for great evil is fully incorporated into her suburban Jersey life without a shade of camp.

I’m aware that Reddit is full of people extracting evidence from each frame of the show, piecing together theories both metaphysical and interpersonal. It’s not my mode, but I’ll admit that the season finale offered less substantial resolution than I’d been hoping for, with an ambiguous and well-timed smirk from Taissa supplying more fuel for speculation than actual enlightenment. So I’m a touch concerned that future seasons will degenerate, as Lost famously did, into a neurotic contemplation of the narrative premises that might better be simply clarified, and relinquished.

The weaker moments of the first season occur when the show relies too much on finicky plotting––gay coach Ben, for example, feels redundant and maybe even tokenistic; I’m not totally sure that all of the political drama around Taissa’s campaign pays off in the end. The most delicious moments of the season are carried by the actors, both in the past and present frames: When young Shauna (Sophie Nélisse) flashes her knife and bears her teeth at Travis; when she and the young Taissa (Jasmin Savoy Brown) discuss, begin, and discontinue the abortion of Shauna’s fetus; even the heartening scene in which Jeff (Warren Kole) defends his wife against a slew of demeaning comparisons from the parents of his would-be in-laws, Jackie’s grieving parents.

“Yellowjackets” suggests a more ambitious critique of civil society.

But the show belongs to the four leads, and the glory with which they strut across the floor of their high-school reunion feels warranted. As Taissa, Tawny Cypress moves confidently and seductively through her scenes, controlling her scene partners’ responses, inscrutable and charismatic. Christina Ricci, one of the most beautiful actors around, electrifies as Misty: Her impeccable comic timing never undermines the threat of her sadistic pleasure-taking, and her final ploy to poison Jessica with the cigarettes she had thrown away shows her as an evil genius dressed again in femme woolliness––an omnimalevolent Ally McBeal. Playing the older Natalie, Lewis gives the best performance of her career, looks like a best-case scenario for Mallory Knox: It is her swerving, frenetic mobility that upholds the frantic punkiness of Yellowjackets’ theme tune, “No Return” by Craig Wedren and Anna Waronker (of the ’90s bands Shudder to Think and that dog., respectively), which, in passing, is perhaps the most aurally disagreeable (and therefore perfect) television theme of all time.

“Become ungovernable,” we are told, in response to the extension of state control over ever more expansive terrains of our bodies, our lives, our desires. Is that what’s happening here? The political allegory from which Yellowjackets derives––the tabula rasa mythology of Lord of the Flies––presumes that underneath the social contracts governing human conduct, there is a primitive evil that promises to emerge once rules are suspended. Yellowjackets suggests a more ambitious critique of civil society, and not just because, since it focuses on women––funny, average, extraordinary, and kind of evil women––it cannot avoid acknowledging a difference between desirable and undesirable forms of disinhibition. But also positioning the atavistic and violent delights of the yellowjackets as prologue––by telling us that these characters have already done these things, and survived––indicates that this is not a fable. Yellowjackets isn’t a warning; this has already happened.


by Grace Lavery
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Grace Lavery is a writer, editor, and academic. She lives in Brooklyn.